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From Peru to NASA: A young scientist’s journey

When Irma Aracely Quispe-Neira decided to embark on a master’s degree at Capitol Technology University, she chose for her research project a topic that is highly significant to her native Peru.

“The glaciers and ice fields of the world are losing ice at an alarming rate,” she said. “And a majority of tropical ice fields lie in the Peruvian Andes. A large body of research has demonstrated that their surface areas have been decreasing at an extremely rapid pace.”

“As a Peruvian, I want to contribute to my country’s success, and I feel that research in this area is one way I can do this.”

Quispe-Neira found that that the area of the ice field at the Quelccaya Ice Cap has shrunk by 23.3% during the last 27 years; if the trend continues, it will reach zero by the year 2122.

Findings like these are a wake-up call for policymakers. The erosion of glacier ice has a tangible impact on the lives of Peruvians because much of the country’s fresh water supply comes from the glaciers.

“We cannot stop the rising global air temperature and increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration,” she says. “But we can raise awareness and help people prepare for what is coming in the near future.”

Young researchers, cutting-edge research

Quispe-Neira’s project is an example of the innovative research that Capitol students – at both the graduate and undergraduate levels – have earned a reputation for. In recent months, students in the Astronautical Engineering program have made fresh contributions in areas such as the tracking of space debris and the use of mobile apps to command orbiting satellites.

The young researcher credits her teachers at Capitol with providing the intellectual support, enthusiasm and encouragement that she needed to take her challenging topic from conception to completion. The school also connected her with a field scientist at NASA who served as mentor for her thesis work.

Capitol’s programs offer “solid knowledge in the field, preparing students for today’s workplace,” Quispe-Neira says. “My graduate work helped me combine my engineering background with science, enabling me to achieve successful results in my research.”

The school provided financial support for Quispe-Neira’s work, awarding her its first ever graduate assistantship. And Capitol’s proximity to federal contractors and agencies helped facilitate connections that opened the door to employment opportunities in the aerospace field. Today, she is based at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where she works on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission, assisting with telemetry, tracking, transfer and flight operations.

Quispe-Neira is a Certified Flight Operation and Systems Engineer, with responsibility for ensuring the successful downlink of engineering and science data, and transmitting commands and command loads as required. She is also the subsystems engineer for the propulsion system and Guidance, Navigation, and Control (GN&C) and RF-Communication subsystems at the LRO Mission’s Operations Center.

“I’m very proud to have been chosen to work on this mission,” she says.

Karate clears the way for a science career

Quispe-Neira’s educational and career trajectory have led her to fulfill an aspiration that goes all the way back to her childhood. When she was six or seven years old, she saw a video clip of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, including Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin taking humanity’s first steps on the moon, and she knew she had found her calling. She wanted to become an astronautical engineer.

For a young girl growing up in a small town in Peru, that was a big dream. The financial challenges of a college education were daunting. Little existed in the way of financial aid for would-be science or engineering students. In Peru’s traditional culture, many believed women shouldn’t be involved in such fields at all.

Quispe-Neira karate-chopped her way through the barriers – literally. She had a knack for martial arts and was able to land a university scholarship via the sport. Her eyes always on the goal, she chose systems engineering as a major and sought out opportunities that would bring her closer to the AE field -- including the decision to enroll at Capitol College after finishing her degree in Peru.

Today, she is active in promoting STEM education in Latin America, particularly among women – who traditionally have faced deeply-embedded obstacles to their education and careers. As part of this endeavor, she is authoring her first book, to be titled “Goals Achieved Without Limits.”  Young people are the intended audience for this motivational work.

“It means a lot to me to share my experiences with others who are looking for the opportunity to follow the paths of engineering and science,” Quispe-Neira said.

In 2013, Quispe-Neira was a keynote speaker during Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) educational and outreach activities organized by the US Embassy in Peru. She was among a group of women selected to promote the role of the United States as a leader in science and innovation, and to encourage youth – especially girls – to pursue scientific careers. The success of the program earned her letters of recognition from then US Ambassador Rose M. Likins and NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr, who praised her for an “incredible job inspiring young Peruvians.”

Recognizing Irma's achievements, Peruvian TV broadcast a special report on Quispe-Neira’s life experiences and scientific career, interviewing her on-site at Goddard. The program provided an opportunity for her to educate the Peruvian public about the LRO mission and the importance of the moon to the earth sciences.

Amid all these activities, meanwhile, she continues to follow the glacier situation in Peru closely. Her ongoing research, she hopes, will build on the findings from her Capitol project.

“I am analyzing the glacier ice erosion using data collected by remote sensing, earth-orbiting satellites,” she said.